Complete Streets: Prioritizing Safety for All Road Users
A Complete Street is safe—and feels safe—for everyone using the street. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, 1,533 jurisdictions across the United States—including two-thirds of the States—have adopted Complete Streets policies directing their transportation agencies to routinely plan, design, build, operate, and maintain safe street networks for everyone. Often, the real challenge of implementing Complete Streets policies is in changing project-development processes to consistently prioritize safety outcomes. To address this challenge, many jurisdictions have gone on to create new plans and Complete Streets design models that transform their project-development processes to prioritize safety for all users.
Complete Streets is a transformative strategy in which the transportation network is planned, designed, built, operated, and maintained to enable safe mobility and access for all road users, including, but not limited to, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders across a broad spectrum of ages and abilities. Moving to a Complete Streets design model may help reverse the trend of increasing fatalities and serious injuries on the Nation’s roadways to reach the goal of zero deaths and to create a healthier, greener, and more equitable roadway system. To support this mission, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) launched a Complete Streets initiative, which includes active participation by 10 program offices, several division offices, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
In 2021, Congress directed FHWA to lay the groundwork for the adoption of a Complete Streets design model. As a result, FHWA began an extensive review of Federal rules, policies, and guidance to understand how Complete Streets could improve safety for all road users. The agency also interviewed stakeholders in State, regional, and local government and professional organizations; some of their insights are included in this article. The resulting report to Congress, Moving to a Complete Streets Design Model: A Report to Congress on Opportunities and Challenges (https://highways.dot.gov/sites/fhwa.dot.gov/files/2022-03/Complete%20Streets%20Report%20to%20Congress.pdf) identifies five areas of opportunity for FHWA and its local, Tribal, and State transportation stakeholders to positively influence the safety of all roadway users:
- Improve data collection and analysis to advance safety for all users.
- Support rigorous safety assessment during project development and design to help prioritize safety outcomes across all project types.
- Accelerate adoption of standards and guidance that promote safety and accessibility for all users and support innovation in design.
- Reinforce the primacy of safety for all users in the interpretation of design standards, guidelines, and project review processes.
- Make Complete Streets FHWA’s default approach for funding and designing non-access-controlled roadways.
The ongoing efforts of the FHWA Complete Streets initiative to address each of the areas identified in the report are described in the next sections.
Improve Data Collection and Analysis
Appropriate data on the modes of transportation that use the road network are critical for tracking the impact of projects and for ensuring that performance management efforts can incentivize projects that support safety for all roadway users. However, basic data about the transportation network, including roadway elements, traffic volumes, and even crash data, are often unavailable or incomplete, especially for people traveling outside of motor vehicles. Additionally, FHWA recognizes that traditional data collection and analysis methods may further underrepresent underserved communities that are disproportionately impacted by traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Transportation agency officials interviewed for the report highlighted that State and local agencies do not have comprehensive or consistent information about roadway features that are essential to safety and comfort for people walking and bicycling, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops, pedestrian signals, or bike lanes. States are not currently required to collect pedestrian or bicyclist user counts. Interviewees noted that many State and local agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have not developed sufficient expertise, technology, or resources to collect and meaningfully use nonmotorized data for planning and decisionmaking. This situation is especially true for small, rural, and underserved communities. The problem is compounded by the undercount of pedestrian and bicycle crashes, which are often not reported.
“The lack of holistic data leads to systemic bias in project selection, which can result in ruling out many Complete Streets projects,” says Laura Sandt, senior research associate for the Human Sciences Research Council. “For example, police-reported crash data are often the primary measure of a road’s safety performance or need for improvement, but they notoriously undercount pedestrian and cyclist crashes and injuries. Despite Complete Streets projects having lots of local support and ability to improve safety and comfort for all road users, the reliance on biased crash data means that these projects receive lower priority.”
The lack of comprehensive and consistent data on infrastructure and travel volume beyond automobiles, or full crash data, presents a challenge to the development of measures that show how projects and investments affect fatalities and serious injuries. It also constrains documentation of potential co-benefits, such as improved health outcomes, increased economic activity, personal cost of transportation savings, or greenhouse gas emission reductions that come from shifting trips away from the use of personal vehicles to sustainable modes of transportation.
FHWA is working to address these issues with initiatives to improve data collection and analysis and to provide new tools to State, local, and Tribal agencies. FHWA worked with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and other U.S. Department of Transportation offices to develop a Learning Agenda aimed at improving foundational knowledge of pedestrian and bicyclist risk rates and other nonmotorized safety data. The Learning Agenda is helping guide future research efforts across the USDOT. In addition, in a Letter Report to FHWA on Complete Streets, the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee of the Transportation Research Board suggests that FHWA can help define the data collection and research, development, and technology necessary to build the science and knowledge on which the safety benefits and policy tradeoffs of Complete Streets design can be based.
Projects underway include an initiative to encourage submission of walking and bicycling volume data into the FHWA Travel Monitoring Analysis System, as well as leading and supporting research projects to identify and study technology-based solutions to obtain exposure data. Also, a research project is underway to develop analytic tools that quantify the risk reduction provided when multiple countermeasures are used to create a Complete Street. FHWA is also reviewing innovative data sources to understand and address disparities experienced by underserved communities and explore new ways to model and measure the benefits of Complete Streets. FHWA is collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on improving the integration of transportation and health data sources to better inform project prioritization and measure potential health benefits of Complete Streets projects, particularly for underserved communities.
Support Rigorous Safety Assessment
State or local agencies may need guidance on how to prioritize safety in transportation planning and performance management across all types of Federal-aid projects.
FHWA has long encouraged the use of the latest evidence-based tools and approaches to assess the future safety performance of an existing or proposed transportation facility. For example, FHWA recommends the use of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Official’s Highway Safety Manual (HSM) to inform State departments of transportation (DOTs), Tribal, and local agencies in targeting investments and making project decisions. However, the analytic tools that are available to assess the benefits of Complete Streets may not be useful in local communities that lack the data to conduct rigorous safety assessments. This situation can make it difficult to adequately score safety through the project prioritization process used by States and MPOs, which undertake project scoring under specified criteria, eligibility analysis, and, less frequently, formal benefit-cost analysis. Some State DOTs and MPOs have addressed this situation by developing their own tools, policies, and procedures to assess and analyze the safety performance of their existing facilities and projects, regardless of funding source, and to determine project alternatives and countermeasures that improve safety. FHWA is seeking to learn more and promote noteworthy practices about these methods as we address the roadway safety crisis.
Of particular note in the report to Congress was the relationship of safety and congestion management, which are two primary goal areas that transportation agencies consider when evaluating projects but that may sometimes be perceived as conflicting with each other. While Federal regulations and policies—including highway design manuals, metropolitan planning requirements, and national performance measures—currently include specific requirements to evaluate congestion, there is no prescribed process to conduct a safety analysis of projects that receive the overwhelming majority of Federal transportation dollars. Specific requirements to address safety are tied to a single funding program, the Highway Safety Improvement Program, which constitutes only about 6 percent of all Federal surface-transportation funding.
The Clean Air Act adds another dimension to the need to properly weigh the safety and environmental benefits of Complete Streets in relation to traditional congestion mitigation methods. Congestion management has long been a primary strategy with the goal of reducing pollutants and improving air quality. Current modeling consistent with this strategy primarily captures the negative impacts of vehicular congestion on air quality. As a result, Complete Streets projects that improve safety for all road users by reallocating roadway space to low- or no-emission modes of transportation—such as transit, biking, and walking—may show increasing vehicular congestion and, as a result, negative air quality impacts without accounting for the benefits of the lower emission modes. Recognizing this issue, some States and localities have created more robust regional and microscale modeling tools that have the capacity to capture mode shift and its benefits. However, data may not be consistently available at a local or regional level, and not all communities have the technical expertise to evaluate and quantify the benefits of shifting to bicycle, pedestrian, or transit trips. FHWA’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Emissions Calculator Toolkit (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/air_quality/cmaq/toolkit/) can support agencies to perform these analyses. Additionally, FHWA is developing resources to help agencies identify tradeoffs and solutions as they prioritize safety in their everyday work, including a primer that will detail operational strategies that can support and complement safety improvements for all users.
Resources in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) provides resources that will help State and local agencies build capacity and fund projects that prioritize safety for all users. The new $5 billion Safe Streets and Roads for All grant program puts an emphasis on helping regional, Tribal, and local jurisdictions create comprehensive safety action plans and carry out projects identified in them. Highway Safety Improvement Program funding has increased and now requires States to prepare vulnerable road user safety assessments. States that have a high proportion of vulnerable road user fatalities compared to the number of total crash fatalities must direct a portion of their Highway Safety Improvement Program funding to address this issue.
Accelerate Adoption of Standards and Guidance
Two documents have long provided standards and governed designs at a national level: FHWA’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) and AASHTO’s A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (also called the Green Book). Both documents are undergoing updates.
Many agencies are also using documents published by industry organizations that provide information on roadway design. Notably, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has published design guides specific to the context of city streets. Many State and local agencies have rewritten their own design documents as part of the implementation of their Complete Streets policies, changing designs and decisionmaking tools to prioritize safety for all users.
To ensure that streets serve people of all abilities, the U.S. Access Board proposed guidelines—known as (Proposed) Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG)—for pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way in 2011. Once the Access Board finalizes the PROWAG, the USDOT and the Department of Justice must undertake their own rulemakings to adopt the PROWAG into their Americans with Disabilities Act regulations as enforceable standards.
In general, the Complete Streets design model includes careful consideration of measures to set and design roadways for appropriate speeds; separate various users in time and space; improve connectivity and access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, including for people with disabilities; and implement safety countermeasures. This model is especially important on arterials in urban areas and many small-town main streets, where the competing demands for throughput and local access create a challenging safety environment. Almost 70 percent of mileage on the National Highway System is not access-controlled freeways, and many of these roads serve a wide variety of road users and purposes beyond rapid mobility. These roadways are the focus of the FHWA Complete Streets initiative. The publication, Complete Streets Transformations, provides scenarios to stimulate ideas for improving these streets as part of developing a Complete Streets network. For people walking, biking, or rolling, continuous corridors and facilities—like sidewalks and bicycle facilities—are essential to ensuring safety and comfort for their entire trip. So there is an emphasis on developing safe and complete bicycle and pedestrian networks and access to public transportation.
Reinforce the Primacy of Safety for All Users
The U.S. transportation system is a complex, decentralized system with Federal, State, Tribal, regional, and local governments responsible for varying aspects that influence safety outcomes. As a result, a full transition to a Complete Streets model requires leadership, identification and elimination of barriers, and development of new policies, rules, and procedures to prioritize safety at all levels of government.
As previously referenced, FHWA is reviewing Federal rules, policies, and guidance to help make Complete Streets the default approach for funding, planning, designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining non-access-controlled roadways. Similar efforts are critical at the State, Tribal, regional, and local levels to identify and eliminate funding and administrative hurdles that discourage Complete Streets implementation. This step is especially important since projects to add features that improve safety for all road users may also encounter obstacles based on the way that Federal policies, rules, and guidance materials are interpreted and applied at the State and local levels.
Some agencies noted that, despite clear Federal guidance on the importance of designing to context (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/css/) and ensuring safety, in some States, project proponents must repeatedly justify the use of designs or treatments that, while allowable, may not yet be common practice in their jurisdiction. One issue behind this reluctance may be concerns about liability, as the engineering practice shifts from ensuring safety by relying on compliance with design standards to an analytical approach based on data and new analysis tools, such as those included in the HSM. BIL clarifies that local jurisdictions may use design guides that are different from State standards on the roads they own that are not part of the National Highway System, without approval from the State.
To begin to address these challenges, FHWA is ramping up training and capacity building, both internally and externally. The FHWA Resource Center has a suite of trainings that support the implementation of a Complete Streets design model. Since January 2022, the Resource Center has fulfilled more than 50 training requests related to Complete Streets, both within FHWA and from State and local stakeholders. Additionally, the Resource Center is providing technical assistance to agencies that are seeking to consistently design for the safety of all users. Some examples include providing assistance to an agency seeking to overcome barriers to a statewide systemic crosswalk improvement program and providing review and advice for a local agency designing its first on-street bike lane.
The report to Congress further elaborates on the challenges at the State and local level that create hurdles for the routine implementation of streets that are safe for all users. For example, local governments may require support from States in overseeing funding for local projects. This requirement is particularly true for smaller projects, such as sidewalks, bicycle facilities, and transit stops. Currently, the administrative burden for smaller projects may be the same or proportionally higher than that for larger capacity expansion roadway projects; this cost may create a disincentive to pursue such projects. This situation is further complicated by the fact that some State DOTs may not be willing to act as fiscal agents for local projects that provide facilities for all users. Agencies interviewed for the report explained that this reluctance may result because State DOTs only administer projects over a certain size, leaving communities with smaller projects seeking another fiscal agent, such as an MPO or another Federal agency, to administer project funding. Additionally, a State that has not embraced a Complete Streets design model may not work closely with a local government on innovative safety treatments—such as separated bike lanes—on roads it owns or controls. The State may instead take a hands-off approach. On these roads, the local jurisdictions may then face the burden of funding and designing projects, leading public involvement, and even securing funding for on-going maintenance. To implement projects that create safe, multimodal facilities and corridors for all users, local governments may face significant hurdles when Complete Streets implementation is not the default approach in State and local funding and administering processes. FHWA is researching the cost associated with Complete Streets implementation to support localities and States in routinely funding and administering projects that prioritize safety for all road users.
To address funding challenges, some State and local governments are pursuing innovative funding and administration practices, like project bundling, to prioritize safety for all road users. Project bundling is a way for multiple local agencies or the State and a local agency to come together and implement similar projects on roadways across multiple jurisdictions. For instance, a jurisdiction could make its project—such as a pavement marking or rumble strip installation—part of a larger State effort. In Minnesota, for example, adjacent counties partnered to submit projects across their roadway network. St. Louis County, MN, used project bundling to reduce unit costs, which provided treatment for more miles of roadways at a lesser cost. Usually, the agency with more experience in administering the cash flow and leading engineering efforts takes the lead on implementation, making it easier for localities without the same resources or confidence to implement the project. As another example, San Diego, CA, is completing a project in which they bundled 60 to 70 intersections together to implement an FHWA Proven Safety Countermeasure, leading pedestrian intervals.
Another source of uneven progress is the number and variety of jurisdictions making decisions about transportation corridors. These entities may have different approaches based on their varying priorities. In many places, different jurisdictions control roadways and transit service, resulting in gaps in the provision of resources and support for the design of on-road transit facilities. For instance, many bus stops lack sidewalk connections, and the need to remove barriers for people with disabilities is complicated by differing jurisdictional responsibilities. To address this challenge, the FHWA Complete Streets initiative includes a Transit Task Force led by FTA staff to support appropriate inclusion of transit service in street design decisions and to prioritize road users’ safe walking, bicycling, and rolling to bus stops and metro stations. FHWA and FTA also recently published a guide, Improving Safety for Pedestrians and Bicyclists Accessing Transit (https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/ped_transit/fhwasa21130_PedBike_Access_to_transit.pdf).
Make Complete Streets FHWA’s Default Approach
All these efforts converge on making Complete Streets FHWA’s default approach to designing non-access-controlled roadways. The aim is to make funding and creating streets that are safe for all users the easiest option for stakeholders.
This transition has been underway in some States. For example, California DOT (Caltrans) recently issued a new Complete Streets Action Plan to guide implementation of its updated Complete Streets policy issued in December 2021.
“Our complete streets work is imperative to ensuring safe, accessible, connected transportation options for all Californians,” said Caltrans Director Tony Tavares. “The Complete Streets Action Plan identifies the steps we will take over the next two years to maximize walking, biking, transit, and passenger rail in communities throughout the state.”
FHWA is developing guidance and technical assistance that better support communities to implement Complete Streets. Additional policy and procedural changes will support Federal-aid recipients in making Complete Streets their default approach as they design non-access-controlled roadways. FHWA is also working with State DOTs to develop, implement, and synthesize the results of a nationwide assessment of State DOT maturity in implementing safety for all users. The information collected through this assessment will help FHWA better understand where it can develop additional technical assistance and tools to improve Complete Streets implementation at the State level.
The FHWA Complete Streets initiative is already advancing specific efforts in addressing all five areas of opportunity identified in the report to Congress. BIL creates new funding opportunities to support safety projects, requires States to use a portion of their State planning and research funding and MPOs to use a portion of their metropolitan planning funding to develop and adopt Complete Streets policies, and brings safety for all users into clearer focus in the eligible uses for formula funding programs. Guided by these identified opportunities and challenges, and with the funding and other tools provided in BIL, both USDOT and FHWA leadership are committed to implementing Complete Streets—reversing the trend of increasing fatal and serious injuries and creating a transportation network that is healthier, greener, and more equitable for all users.
Barbara McCann serves as senior advisor to the associate administrator in FHWA’s Office of Safety. She co-leads the agency-wide Complete Streets Working Group. Before joining USDOT in 2014, she served as the founding executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition.
Anthony Boutros is a transportation specialist in FHWA’s Office of Safety, focusing on advancing Complete Streets and equity in safety programs. He holds bachelor’s degrees in sociology, public health studies, and international studies from Johns Hopkins University and is a Truman-Albright Fellow.
Anna Biton is a community planner at the USDOT Volpe Center. Her work primarily focuses on safety, asset management, and performance management. Anna holds a B.S. in environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.